What a difference a week makes.
Seven days ago it was the red and black side of Milan who were flush with optimism, stunned at a reversal in fortunes that had seen their hopes shattered in pre-season and then steadily rebuilt in Siena.
They had witnessed the first tentative steps of the apparent rebirth of Ronaldinho, they had seen Alexandre Pato set himself up for what many to believe will be “his” season with two clinical goals, and they had seemingly allayed any fears that the ageing and aching limbs of Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, Alessandro Nesta, Gianluca Zambrotta and Marek Jankulovski were a bridge that not even the confident and bullish Leonardo and the downright brash Silvio Berlusconi could cross.
Their neighbours Inter, on the other hand, were a little more withdrawn from the optimism. They had seen a summer of pre-season strengthening take place with a string of useful and big-name signings, but the same old problems seemed to persist. They lost the Supercopa to Lazio despite the presence of Samuel Eto’o and Diego Milito, and they opened their Serie A defence with a tepid 1-1 draw with newly-promoted Bari at San Siro.
But a week later José Mourinho’s constant demands for more creativity in his midfield have been met, his team have picked up their first win of the season in the most emphatic of styles, and any optimism held by their neighbours has been well and truly crushed. And then stamped on repeatedly until all trace has been officially removed.
For on Saturday night, Inter beat Milan in the first Derby della Madonnina of the season. And they didn’t just beat them, they obliterated them. They extinguished any delusions held by Leonardo, Berlusconi, or any Milanista with style, panache, and cold-blooded efficiency. Four unanswered goals, first in Inter colours for Milito and Motta, a fine debut for Wesley Sneijder, and the genuine feeling that, had they wished to, they could have hit double figures. Such was the dominance enjoyed by Mourinho’s men here.
For Milan, the repercussions go beyond this game. Captain Gattuso picked up a red card of childish idiocy, as well as an ankle injury that will keep him out of Italy’s World Cup qualifiers with Georgia & Bulgaria, Ronaldinho plunged new depths in search of some consistency, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar wasn’t given a start when Milan patently need him, Pato wore the look of the lone man charged with fighting back 40ft waves armed with a lolly stick, Pirlo wore the look of a man pining for the MLS, whilst Leonardo could be forgiven for wishing he was snuggled up in the BBC studio with Mark Lawrenson. Honestly.
Milan had actually started with relative zest, Mathieu Flamini- impressive in the first half, withdrawn predictably at the break- twice gave Maicon problems down the left, whilst Ronaldinho miskicked horribly on his left foot after Pato had pulled the ball back invitingly. But that was as good as it got. Inter, and Sneijder especially, were slick, confident and devastating. Within five minutes the Dutchman had stung the palm of Marco Storari with a 25 yard drive, and before half an hour they had opened up Milan with surgical precision, and murderous intent, a fabulous passing move allowing Milito to slide in his former Genoa mate Motta for a clinically swept finish beyond an exposed Storari. The Rossoneri fell silent, the Nerazzuri sensed blood.
Rightly so, six minutes later Maicon launched a ball over the top of the inside right channel for Eto’o, who got his body in between Gattuso and ball, waited for the contact, and gleefully accepted the penalty. Milito spotted the ball, Storari tried his tricks, the ball went flying into the roof of the net. 2-0 = Game Over.
Even more so minutes later as Gattuso, infuriated by both an ankle injury, plus the sluggishness of Clarence Seedorf in preparing to replace him, piled foolishly into Sneijder on halfway, and picked up a second yellow. He left the field berating the Milan bench for their carelessness, he really should be having a little look in the mirror this morning.
Seedorf, having taken ten minutes to get his shirt on, was sent back down the touchline to warm up, and in the meantime Inter made the game safe before the half-time whistle. Maicon had looked dubious in the early exchanges as Pato and Flamini both drifted onto the Brazilian, but with Milan’s heads in the clouds, the muscular full back was able to exchange passes with Milito and drive home number three beyond Storari. Leonardo bowed his head, Mourinho looked especially pleased with himself.
His plan at the interval was baffling, removing the energy and passion of Flamini, as well as the woeful Marco Borriello, introducing Massimo Ambrosini & Seedorf. It didn’t work, although Seedorf showed glimpses of hunger and quality. Inter could have extended their lead through Sneijder and Eto’o, who saw his header ruled out for offside, long before Dejan Stanković added the finishing touches to the scoreline with a sensational 25 yarder that dipped viciously into a dazed Storari’s top left hand corner.
By this time Ronaldinho had already departed to uniform jeers, replaced by Huntelaar for an eminently forgettable Serie A debut, whilst Inter had suffered their only negative experience of the day, Motta picking up a thigh strain to be replaced by Sulley Muntari.
After Stanković’s effortless contribution, the game petered out into something resembling a training match, Júlio César smothered two Huntelaar efforts, Eto’o tried and failed to make it three in three for himself, whilst Storari earned himself the tiniest of victories with a fine save from another Stanković screamer, but on a day like this for Milan, there can be no satisfaction. They look like everything people said they were, old, tired, lazy, in need of overhaul.
With less than 48 hours till the transfer deadline, Rossoneri fans have reason to be nervous for their side’s position in the top four this season. Kaká has gone, his replacement (Gourcuff) has gone, Ronaldinho cannot be trusted on a weekly basis, and Pato cannot do it all on his own- yet. Huntelaar will add goals, he always does, but whether it will be enough is debatable.
For Inter on the other hand, there can be very little but happiness today. Sneijder’s debut gives cause for genuine excitement (more so than whispers of a swap deal involving Muntari & Jermaine Jenas), whilst the performances of Milito, Eto’o, Maicon, Stanković and the ageless Javier Zanetti show that Mourinho has a side packed with top class talent.
Europe will surely be Inter’s primary concern this year, but judging by this Serie A will be their property again come May 2010. Their director Massimo Moratti taunted his City rivals afterwards by crowing how Milan were “a warm up for Barcelona (who Inter will meet in the Champions League next month)“. He was wrong, Milan were a warm up for no-one.